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2018 could bring energy projects, trouble to Aroostook

FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine — This year, Aroostook County economic experts have their eyes on energy, as they follow the fate of the ReEnergy biomass plants in Ashland and Fort Fairfield.

Bob Dorsey, president of the Aroostook Partnership, a group of major employers, is closely watching the biomass plants in Ashland and Fort Fairfield. ReEnergy is hoping to land new contracts with manufacturers who could “co-locate” and buy the plants’ heat, steam and electricity, and in turn help shore up crucial parts of Aroostook County’s forestry sector.

“Our forestry sector in Aroostook County is the strongest in the state. Our mills and plants are doing very well and we want to keep it that way,” said Dorsey.

Dorsey said the ReEnergy plants in Ashland and Fort Fairfield are key to the long-term sustainability of northern Maine woods products companies, as well as to residential electricity consumers. ReEnergy operates four plants in Maine that buy lower-grade wood and wood residues from loggers and lumber mills and use the materials to generate electricity.

But ReEnergy’s biomass plants, particularly in Ashland and Fort Fairfield, are struggling due to a host a factors, including cheap and abundant natural gas outcompeting biomass in East Coast energy markets.

Last year, New York-based ReEnergy informed the Northern Maine Independent System Administrator — the operator of the electric grid in Aroostook and Washington counties — that the Ashland and Fort Fairfield facilities could close in September 2018 if they don’t get additional revenue sources.

“We will continue our aggressive efforts to pursue arrangements that will allow both facilities to achieve long-term sustainable business models and remain open for years to come,” said Sarah Boggess, ReEnergy’s director of communications and governmental affairs. “However, we see the potential for ceasing operations at one or both facilities, and we are required to provide a 12-month notice of potential closure under northern Maine’s market rules.”

All four of ReEnergy’s Maine plants, including the other two in Livermore Falls and Stratton, are “vulnerable,” Boggess said. But the Ashland and Fort Fairfield plants are “suffering more hardship,” she said, in part due to the high transmission costs for sending energy to Connecticut, where the ReEnergy plants sell some power under the state’s renewable energy program.

Unlike the rest of Maine, northern Maine’s grid is not connected directly with the rest of New England, but is connected with New Brunswick’s grid. To send electricity to the ISO-New England power grid from Aroostook County, the ReEnergy plants must route the energy through New Brunswick transmission lines, which then connect to ISO, and “pay multiple levels of transmission charges,” Boggess said. “This exporting of power is necessary in order for the facilities to sell (renewable energy certificates) in Connecticut, which represent a critical revenue stream for the facilities.”

The Ashland and Fort Fairfield plants have benefited from Maine’s power purchase agreement, Boggess said. That two-year, $13.4 million aid program, was meant to help the two ReEnergy plants as well as the Stored Solar biomass plants in West Enfield and Jonesboro.

That funding is slated to run its course this year. Dorsey said he and others, including State Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, are working some legislative proposals that could extend the funding or possibly divert some of the funds from Stored Solar — which has been accused of not paying loggers — to ReEnergy.

In the long-term, ReEnergy’s best bet may hinge on other companies interested in collaborating with the biomass facilities on an industrial level.

In late October, ReEnergy issued a request for proposals seeking pitches from businesses such as manufacturers that could benefit from using excess heat, hot water and affordable electricity from one of ReEnergy’s Maine biomass plants.

Those businesses could include anything from heated greenhouses and aquaculture facilities to advanced wood-based chemical manufacturing of biodegradable plastic, said Charlotte Mace, executive director of Biobased Maine, the group that facilitated the request for proposals, in an October interview.

The deadline for those proposals closed Nov. 30 and the ReEnergy expects to make an announcement on possible winners in the spring, Boggess said.

Dorsey said that many residents would be impacted by a closure of the two ReEnergy plants, which together employ about 50 people.

“They both generate about 30 megawatts each, which helps keep the power stable,” Dorsey said.

If they were to close, the plants’ transmission costs would be reapportioned across the northern Maine grid, and other heavy energy users like McCain Foods, Huber Engineered Woods and hospitals, would see cost increases, Dorsey said.

Later this month the Aroostook Partnership is convening meetings on the topic of energy with the Maine Public Utilities Commission and the director of the Maine Governor’s Energy Office. The meetings will be open to the public and intended for business leaders and residents to share their ideas on energy policy, Dorsey said. The meeting with the Governor’s Energy Office director will be held Jan. 10 at the University of Maine Presque Isle, while the PUC meeting is being rescheduled due to Jan. 4’s storm.

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